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Environment and economics mix in Malawi

An age-old battle rages between the environment and the economy, with the environment often losing out to economic development. But projects in Lake Malawi National Park and Mlambe Natural Resource Management show that environmental preservation can also be economically profitable.
Brian Ligomeka

Although located in different parts of Malawi, and created under different circumstances, Lake Malawi National Park and Mlambe Natural Resource Management share several key similarities. They are both success stories of how natural environments can be rehabilitated after having been plundered by humans. And, they both show that economic activity and environmental preservation can actually go hand-in-hand rather than clash, as is usually the case.

Within the boundaries of Lake Malawi National Park in southern Malawi are situated seven enclave villages, one of which is called Chembe. More than 20 years ago, people from Chembe, then Malawi's largest fishing village, indiscriminately netted thousands and thousands of fish at Cape Maclear, Mangochi. They did not know then that their actions posed a great threat to the world's most prized and rare species of fish that is only found in Lake Malawi.

The rate of over fishing, which was likely to result in the extinction of the rare, brightly coloured and rock-living cichlids, locally known as mbuna, alarmed the government. In 1980, the government created a protected area that it called Lake Malawi National Park, which consists of some 90 square kilometres of land encompassing Cape Maclear Peninsula and a portion of water extending 100 metres from the shore.

The establishment of the park was not in itself a guarantee that the protected area's fauna and flora would be at peace from human interference. The biggest problem was how to protect the fauna from over 20,000 people living in the seven villages located within the park's boundaries.

This problem was unique to Lake Malawi National Park. Usually, people living within the boundaries of a designated area are relocated so that the natural environment can be fully protected. But in this case, government officials decided not to relocate residents as it was felt that greater problems would come about by evicting those people then by allowing them to stay.

The greatest challenge for park officials was to find a way for the village's inhabitants to co-exist with wild animals. The people in the park, the majority of whom have depended on fishing as the only way of earning their livelihood since time immemorial, were in frequent conflict with wildlife officials.

It was only when government, with the help of non-governmental organisations, vigorously conducted civic education programmes that the trend began to change. Organisations such as the Small Enterprises Development of Malawi (SEDOM) and the World Bank educated people on how they could best sustain the area's natural resources while diversifying into other areas of economic livelihood.

Group Village Headman Anguye Chembe of Cape Maclear said that little by little, people began to take heed of the environmental awareness campaigns. The traditional leader says that at present, almost everybody in the village is fully aware of the scientific and economic importance of natural resources, especially the mbuna fish.

"I was greatly distressed when I learnt that the government wanted to establish a game park in my area," said Chembe. "First of all I knew I would lose my chieftainship. Secondly I knew that I and my people would be displaced, leaving our land to the kingdom of the animals. Fortunately this has not been the case," says Chembe.

SEDOM began their programmes in 1999 and are run on a yearly basis. A typical programme benefits about 500 people.

SEDOM offered courses in small-scale business entrepreneurship in addition to offering business loans to villagers. As alternatives to fishing, people are now involved in other income-generating activities such as the rearing of rock rabbits, guinea fowls, vegetable growing, hunting, and exotic tree growing.

These activities are done both on individual level and in groups known as Village Natural Resource Management Committees. The villagers are also allowed to fish outside of the 100-metre zone of the protected areas.

Now, anyone who dares to poach animals or fish in the protected zone is arrested by voluntary local scouts and prosecuted by traditional leaders if they commit minor offences. Local leaders refer those who commit serious offences to either the police or park officials.

George Banda, Environmental Education Officer at Lake Malawi National Park, said the success of the project is a model that human beings and wildlife can co-exist with each other.

"This project has been a great success," said Banda. "It is a practical proof that wildlife conservation does not necessarily mean displacing people from their villages."

While the people of Chembe were over fishing, villagers living in settlements - now part of the Mlambe Natural Resource Management project - in the eastern part of Mwanza District in southern Malawi were rapidly chopping down the pristine forests that had surrounded their communities.

In the 1970s, the Shire Valley - which included within its boundaries the villages of Chikwekwe, Gobede, George, Kam'mwamba and Manyenje - had large areas of land under natural forest cover, primarily because Mwanza District as a whole had a relatively low population and was less developed, with poor road infrastructure, making the forests inaccessible.

The scenario changed in the mid 1980s. Following the construction of a road network, people flocked into the area to settle. The population of the five villages, which was pegged at 1,530 in 1974, shot up to more than 4,000 persons in 1998. Of the total 6,154 hectares in the area, only 3,165 hectares were under forest cover as of 1995.

The settlers cleared forest areas to create gardens for agriculture. Because of easy access to the commercial city of Blantyre and other towns, there was a boom almost overnight in the demand for charcoal and firewood. The area, which was once covered by thick forests, began to experience deforestation at the rate of 1.6 percent per year. About 400 hectares were being chopped down per year.

In a bid to arrest deforestation in the area, the Wildlife Society of Malawi (WSM), with technical expertise from the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) Forestry Technical Coordination Unit, set up a US$220,000 project. German Technical Cooperation (GTZ) funds the project, known as Mlambe Natural Resource Management. It aims to: reduce deforestation in the area; integrate women and other marginalised groups into the sustainable management of natural resources; and strategises for the harvesting of non-timber forestry products.

Rankin Mwamadi, WSM Forestry Programme Officer, said project staff conducted campaigns to create awareness in local communities of the dangers of deforestation. Campaigns used drama, community debates, and local media to put that message across.

"At first the people responded reluctantly to our calls," said Mwamadi. "But we worked hard and convinced the traditional leaders. Their subjects accepted and later realised the benefits of using the environment productively without depleting natural resources."

The Wildlife Society later mobilised people to form Village Forest Areas, which are communal forests under the care of residents of a particular section of the village or the whole village. There are now 11 of these Village Forest Areas. Mwamadi said that along the same idea, communities demarcated land - called Individual Forest Areas - to conserve their own trees for home needs.

Mwamadi said that the conservation of forests cannot work if the people who live in the area are not allowed to benefit from the resources. To ensure that the communities are able to earn a living from the area's natural resources while sustaining the indigenous forests, the project has facilitated the formation of groups to carry out the management, utilisation, and marketing of non-timber forest products.

Guinea fowl rearing has become the major income generating activity introduced by the project to stop people from depending too much on timber forest products.

Communities were taught how to tame guinea fowl, which are wild birds. After the training, the communities formed over 40 clubs that were given over 1,000 birds. Many of the community members are now raising their own birds.

Emily Ng'omba, one of the farmers, said guinea fowl rearing has proved to be a successful income generating activity. She boasted that one bird fetches the minimum price of US$4.5, which is twice the price of a 50-kilogramme bag of charcoal.

Bee keeping, which the communities in the project area have been practicing for a long time, is another income generating activity. The major difference between the bee keeping promoted by the project and traditional methods are the technologies involved. Traditional methods involved the use of box-hives made from natural tree barks, which consequently left the trees to dry. Modern technologies use box-hives made from fast growing exotic trees, therefore sparing the natural forests.

Currently, there are 24 bee-keeping clubs with 82 beehives, most of which have already been colonized. Farmers harvest and sell honey from them.

Besides bee keeping and guinea fowl rearing, the project has also provided a ready market for vast amounts of wild fruits in the project area. Indigenous fruits currently marketed at project headquarters include baobab (Adansonia digitata) and tamarind (Tamarindus indica).

After buying the fruits, the project processes them into juices. Currently, communities are being trained on how to process the natural fruits.

Another processing activity introduced by the project is the processing of lemons, oranges, tangerines, Sclerocrya caffra, and Hibiscus sabdariffa into products into jellies, jams, and marmalades. Women received training on this activity and have now gone into full production.

Phillip Liwonde of Kamwamba Forest Area said it is "slavery" to go into the bush to produce charcoal. Trees must be felled and burned for three nights to produce 10 bags of charcoal, only to be sold at US$2.5 when one can easily raise US$30 through the sale of fruits, which are found everywhere in the forests.

The establishment of the project has almost brought to a halt charcoal and fuelwood exploitation and trafficking. The Mlambe Project is one shining example that rapid population is not incompatible with the sustainable management of the environment.

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